Biden's remark illuminates battle that Obama faces

ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- Joseph R. Biden Jr., the veteran senator from Delaware, had hoped for a big splash when he rolled out his campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. He got one, and he's still drying himself off.

Mr. Biden has spent the last several days paying penance for remarks he made about another Democratic contender, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.


You've probably heard something of the controversy by now. Asked about Mr. Obama, Mr. Biden praised him as "the first mainstream African-American" seeking the presidency. He also described Mr. Obama as "articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

Mr. Biden is not an idiot - or patently inarticulate, like President Bush - so he must have known he had just said something dumb.


I'm prepared to give the senator a bit of a break. He wandered into a thicket of racially charged code words, proving once again that Americans - even "mainstream" pols like Mr. Biden - are hardly color-blind. He couldn't resist, for example, using the word "articulate" to describe Mr. Obama, as if even moderately liberal whites are still pleasantly surprised when they come across an educated black person who speaks well.

But like so much of what spills out of our mouths when we're not thinking, Mr. Biden's remarks illuminate something too long hidden: the trip wires and flash points around issues of race and class. Forget "clean." Never mind "nice-looking." The most intriguing word the Delaware senator used in describing Mr. Obama was "mainstream."

Mr. Biden has already called the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, presumably to assure them that he didn't think they failed to take regular showers or had an uneasy relationship with the English language. But Mr. Biden was surely contrasting Mr. Obama with Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton when he used the word "mainstream." And he was right.

Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton are bright enough and articulate enough to command the public stage. But both men have built their public careers around thorny issues and inflammatory strategies that have kept them out of the political mainstream. That's no blanket condemnation of their causes, some of which have been more righteous than others. The views of civil rights icons such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were well outside the political mainstream in the 1950s and '60s. Dr. King's brilliance lay in his ability to move the consensus so that those views are now mainstream.

That's why Mr. Obama can run for president and be taken seriously.

But the success of the civil rights movement didn't eliminate bigotry or vanquish the welter of stereotypes that still cling to black Americans. It's harder for black people to get voted into the "mainstream" than you may think - especially black men. Not only does language matter, but so does tone of voice. So does dress. So does hair. And the appellation "all-American" is never applied to black folk, no matter how they behave.

Nor has the post-civil rights era yet snuffed out the intra-race paranoia that enforces a certain groupthink, a code that proclaims the rules for black authenticity. Mr. Sharpton, who sought the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2004, has already sent signals suggesting that Mr. Obama might not be suitably "black" for his tastes. And Princeton University professor Melissa Harris Lacewell recently told The Washington Post: "You can be elected president as a black person only if you signal at some level that you are independent from black people."

So Mr. Obama has the John F. Kennedy problem - in blackface. (To be elected the first Catholic president in 1960, Mr. Kennedy had first to reassure voters he would not take orders from the pope.) I'm confident Mr. Obama can handle it. As can we.


In 1972, Shirley Chisholm, a Democratic congresswoman from New York, became the first black person to make a presidential bid from a major party. In 1984, Mr. Jackson drew ecstatic support from black voters in the Democratic primaries when he sought the nomination. (Some of my older relatives, knowing he could not win the primary, pledged to vote for him anyway, fearing they might never again get the chance to vote for a black candidate for the presidency.) We've come a long way since then. Mr. Obama's campaign will show us just how far.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is